Your Wild Irish Roots

By Dwight A. Radford and Kyle J. Betit Premium

What does Irish mean?

The answer isn’t as simple as you might think. This can be an emotional subject — and a confusing one. Many Americans have the perception that Irish means both Gaelic and Catholic, thus eliminating anyone who doesn’t fit into those categories. But when we visit Irish festivals and genealogy gatherings around the United States, we find that at least half of the people have ancestors from Ireland who were Protestants rather than Catholics. We also find that many Irish Catholics and their children left the church in America. Does that mean they are no longer Irish?

In our search for the Irish in America, we have realized just how complicated the Irish-American experience is. We also have found that historians, for the sake of weaving together this complex history, have sometimes unknowingly contributed to its oversimplification. So we’ll begin by dispelling a few myths and sharing some observations that have affected our genealogical research:

• Not all Irish who came to America were the poor, starving, illiterate peasants that many books would have us believe. And not all of them settled in large cities such as New York or Boston. Anyone who has done research in Iowa or Wisconsin knows just how Irish these areas were. The Irish of all social classes settled just about everywhere.

• On the subject of religion, people tend to assume that their ancestors always did what they themselves would have done. To be frank, they didn’t. We’ve found that many Irish Catholics either left the church or married into non-Catholic families. In reverse, we find that Protestant Irish families married into Catholic families and raised their families as Catholics. The Irish were among the founders or earliest members of nontraditional churches such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborg), Shakers and other experimental or communal groups of the 19th century.

• We’ve all heard the term melting pot. Our studies have shown that Irish in the United States intermarried and had children with Native Americans, African-Americans and just about every other ethnic group.

• The Irish were members of many fraternal, benevolent, secret and social societies. While this was not unique to the Irish, the anomalies are interesting. For example, Irish Catholics are documented in Freemasons’ records, even though membership in such organizations would have been against the wishes of their church.

• The concept that families spent time elsewhere between Ireland and America is an idea whose time has now arrived. It may be that once you get your ancestors out of the United States, you need to do your Canadian, Australian or English research before even considering Irish records.

Between 1776 and 1820, 100,000 of the 250,000 immigrants to America were Irish; between 1821 and 1900, nearly 4 million Irish immigrated to America. But the question remains: Who are the Irish? Many thousands of Presbyterians from the lowlands of Scotland settled in Ulster (the northern province of Ireland) in the 1600s, and their descendants came to America in great numbers, starting in 1718. There were both “Old English” (Normans who were Catholics) and “New English” (Protestants who came after the Reformation) families who settled in Ireland, as well. Irish residents of English origin were often called the Anglo-Irish. The more prominent Anglo-Irish residents comprised the Protestant Ascendancy, which ruled Ireland for several centuries.

We can’t use religion as a guideline to what Irish means because religion is so intermixed among families in Ireland (mixed marriages are more common than anyone wants to admit). And, of course, we have to consider the political division between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. So for our purposes, we’ll say that Irish means simply “from the island of Ireland.”

Starting at home

To begin researching your Irish roots, you don’t have to travel across the Atlantic. In fact, you probably have access to many Irish records right in your hometown, or close to it, just by ordering them on microfilm from the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. The library, which houses the largest collection of Irish records outside of Ireland itself, is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).

But you don’t have to travel to Utah to access these records. The library has more than 3,700 branches, called Family History Centers (FHCs for short), across the country and worldwide, so chances are there’s one in your neighborhood. By visiting an FHC, you can order the microfilmed records held at the FHL for the cost of the postage. To find the FHC nearest you, visit the FamilySearch Web site, also sponsored by LDS, at <>.

From one perspective, doing Irish research is easier in Salt Lake City than it is in Ireland. That’s because the FHL has microfilm from multiple Irish repositories. Among the FHL’s holdings are cemetery, census, church, estate, land, military, occupational and taxation records; directories; genealogies; and wills. For a research outline, historical background and a guide to FHL holdings, click on the FamilySearch Research Help for Ireland <>.

Other valuable repositories outside Ireland are the Allen County Public Library <> in Fort Wayne, Ind., and the New England Historic Genealogical Society <> in Boston. The library of the Irish Genealogical Society International <> in St. Paul, Minn., is especially worth mentioning because it collects a large number of Irish books and journals, including many that are out of print or of limited circulation.

The two W’s: Who and where

To successfully trace your Irish ancestors, you’ll need to understand a certain complexity to Irish names. Your ancestor may have used several given names during his or her life. Church records and civil registrations often record nicknames, rather than formal given names. Many nicknames, such as Kate for Catherine or Con for Cornelius, are easy to spot, while others, such as Delia for Bridget or Sarah for Cecilia, are not. We recommend two books that list nicknames: Irish Christian Names: An A-Z of First Names by Ronan Coghlan (Johnston and Bacon) and, for Scots-Irish, Scottish Christian Names: An A-Z of First Names by Leslie Alan Dunkling (Johnston and Bacon). Many Irish Catholic parish registers are recorded in Latin, so it helps to have a basic understanding of Latin names. The Record Interpreter: A Collection of Abbreviations, Latin Words and Names Used in English Historical Manuscripts and Records by Charles T. Martin (Stevens and Sons) includes a helpful list of Latin names and their English equivalents.

Irish surnames are just as complex. Variations in both form and spelling are common problems. One of the most common variations you’ll find is the adding and dropping of O’ and Mc before Irish family names. You may see a family listed as both Connor and O’Connor in a church register. Immigrants from Ireland often dropped or added the prefix in their name, but there’s no hard and fast rule about this principle. One of the most useful guides regarding the complexity of Irish surnames is Varieties and Synonyms of Surnames and Christian Names in Ireland by Robert E. Matheson (Genealogical Publishing Co.).

If you don’t know where in Ireland your ancestor came from, usually you’ll need to concentrate on sources in the country where your immigrant family settled. We don’t recommend that you try to use Irish records before you know the family’s Irish origins.

It’s impossible to know in advance which sources will tell you where in Ireland your ancestor was born. You will find many sources useful regardless of whether they state a specific birthplace. As far as finding an Irish place of origin, some of the most useful sources include obituaries, death certificates and tombstones. Local histories and census, marriage and church records also are important potential sources. Trace the immigrant ancestor back in time step by step to compile documents from arrival in the adoptive country until death and burial. Besides finding the actual birthplace in Ireland, you’ll want to look for other important clues, such as birth date and parents’ names, especially the mother’s maiden name. And don’t forget to research the extended family, friends and neighbors. Immigrants from the same community in Ireland often emigrated together and settled together abroad.

On to Ireland

Why go to Dublin or Belfast for your Irish research? Isn’t everything available through the Family History Library in Salt Lake City anyway? The truth is that many Irish genealogy sources are available through the FHL, but on the other hand, many original records of your Irish ancestors are available only in Ireland. Some main Dublin repositories include the National Archives of Ireland, National Library of Ireland and the Representative Church Body Library; the largest archive in Belfast is the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Remember that the island of Ireland is politically divided; Belfast has its own repositories covering Northern Ireland. For a good guide to libraries and archives throughout the island, read Directory of Irish Archives, edited by Seamus Helferty and Raymond Refausse (Four Courts Press,).

You may have heard someone say that Irish research is impossible because “all the Irish records were destroyed.” This is a common oversimplification of what has happened to Irish records. During the 1922 Irish Civil War, the Public Record Office of Ireland at Four Courts in Dublin was destroyed by fire, and a number of records, including pre-1858 wills and administrations, 1821 to 1851 census records, and more than half of the Church of Ireland parish registers were destroyed. But this is by no means a reason to avoid Irish records; a wide variety of sources still are available for your research.

Geography: The key to your success

Understanding the lay of the land and its divisions is the key to successful research. Ireland is divided into provinces, which in turn are divided into counties, which in turn are divided into civil parishes (not the same as church parishes, mind you). Civil parishes are divided into town-lands, each of which is a surveyed area of land with a certain acreage and set of boundaries. As if this were not enough, Irish records are also arranged by poor law unions, superintendent registrar’s districts and baronies, which were all created to meet the government’s needs to serve its growing population.

These administrative units often overlap, which means you must think in a more abstract way than you would in other types of genealogical research. If you have an Irish place name and you’re not sure what or where it is, we suggest the 1851, 1871 and 1901 General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland to find the official spelling and location of each townland in Ireland. The 1871 and 1901 indexes are available on microfilm; the 1851 edition has been reprinted by the Genealogical Publishing Co. Another good source is A Guide to Irish Parish Registers by Brian Mitchell (Genealogical Publishing Co.).

On the records

Once you’ve located your ancestor’s place of origin, you can begin searching Irish records. Here’s a look at what’s available:

Censuses and name lists: The earliest surviving census for Ireland is 1901. Nearly all Irish census returns for 1821 through 1851 were destroyed in the Dublin Four Courts fire of 1922; the returns for 1861 through 1891 were pulped after the statistical information was compiled. Nonetheless, both the 1901 and 1911 censuses have been microfilmed and released to the public — you can access them through the FHL.

Because many of the records have been destroyed, researchers often use “census substitutes” — partial name lists recorded for a variety of reasons, such as taxation or voter registration. Fortunately, many researchers have put together lists of what they consider useful census fragments and name lists. You can find the FHL’s list of its holdings in the guide Register of Irish Census and Census Substitutes.

Church records: Roman Catholics make up the majority of Ireland’s population. The second-largest denomination is the Church of Ireland, followed by Presbyterianism and Methodism. For a guide to the records of most faiths represented in Ireland, consult Irish Church Records edited by James G. Ryan (Flyleaf Press).

Regardless of an ancestor’s faith, don’t overlook the Church of Ireland’s records. Roman Catholics and nonconformists often were buried in Church of Ireland cemeteries. If a Catholic or Presbyterian family had real estate, members of the family might have had a Church of Ireland marriage ceremony to make the union legal and preserve their property rights.

If you know the county where your ancestor lived, you can contact the appropriate heritage center that has indexed the church records for that county. (For information about most heritage centers, visit the Irish Family History Foundation site at <>.) If you know a specific town or townland where your ancestor lived, you can find out what churches of your ancestor’s denomination served that place. An easy way to do this is to use The Irish Times Irish Ancestors Web site <> (note that it charges a subscription fee).

Civil registrations: Ireland didn’t begin recording all births, deaths and marriages until January 1864 (registration of non-Catholic marriages began in April 1845). But it’s relatively easy to find an Irish civil registration entry if one was recorded for your ancestor. That’s because there are yearly indexes for 1845 to 1877 and quarterly indexes starting in 1878 that cover the whole island. Mind you, there are some limitations; for example, the birth indexes don’t give parents’ names.

The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have kept separate civil registrations since 1921. The original records of 1845 to 1921 for all of Ireland are at the General Register Office at Joyce House in Dublin. Those from 1921 to the present day for the Republic of Ireland are at Joyce House, and those for Northern Ireland are at the General Register Office at Oxford House in Belfast. The indexes at Joyce House are open to the public, and you can search them in person or through the mail for a fee. You can also get microfilm copies of the indexes to civil registration from 1845 through 1958 from the FHL.

Land records: Many of our Irish ancestors were tenant farmers who leased or rented their land directly from a landowner or indirectly from a middleman. Only a small percentage of people in Ireland owned their land outright, or “in fee.” Several layers of subleasing might separate the actual landowner and your ancestor.

Beginning in 1708, the Irish registered land transactions with the Registry of Deeds in Dublin, although registration wasn’t mandatory. In the Registry of Deeds, you can find deeds of sale, lease agreements, marriage settlements and wills. Don’t assume that just because your ancestor wasn’t rich or prominent, you won’t find information about him or her in the Registry of Deeds. One of the most valuable finds is a deed with a list of tenants.

You can find two useful indexes to the Registry of Deeds. The Surname Index is a personal-name index to the sellers (grantors) of land; not until 1833 does it include the buyers (grantees) or identify where the property was located. The Lands Index or County Index is arranged geographically and lists streets within towns and cities. The huge collection of Registry of Deeds records from 1708 to 1929 and the corresponding Surname Index and Lands Index are available on microfilm from the FHL.

Military records: The Irish made up a large percentage of the British Army. Not only were well-educated young men attracted to the army, but many poor young men also would enlist to improve their status in life. The army was often a family tradition. Use the records generated about these men and their families to reconstruct what your ancestor did with his life. And if you’re still looking for your army ancestor’s birthplace, his military records might reveal it.

We recommend a couple of research guides for army records: My Ancestor Was in the British Army: How Can I Find Out More About Him? by Michael J. Watts and Christopher T. Witts (Society of Genealogists) and Army Records for Family Historians by Simon Fowler and William Spencer (Pen & Sword). Most British military records are at the Public Record Office in England, but you can also access large collections on microfilm at the Family History Library.

Taxation records: In tracing just about any ancestor in 19th- or 20th-century Ireland, you’ll find tax records to be an indispensable resource. The major tax sources most people use in their research are the Tithe Applotment Composition Books (1823 to 1837) and Griffith’s Valuation of Ireland (1847 to 1864). Tax records are particularly important because the 19th-century censuses were destroyed. And they record not only landowners, but also renters, leaseholders and sometimes even squatters.

The tithe was a tax based on how much land a person occupied, and rural inhabitants paid it to support clergy of the Church of Ireland. People of all denominations were required to pay the tithe because the Church of Ireland was the established church until 1871. The Tithe Applotment Books were first compiled in 1823 — long after the Irish had begun paying taxes — when the Tithe Composition Act of 1823 allowed the Irish to pay taxes in cash, rather than “in kind” (by giving a portion of their crops or herd). The Tithe Applotment Books record how much each tithe-payer had to give the Church of Ireland. Microfilm copies of the books for all counties are available at the FHL.

Griffith’s Valuation of Rateable Property (commonly called “Griffith’s Primary Valuation”) was a valuation of land and building holdings arranged by poor law union, barony, civil parish and townland. Griffith’s is an important source because it lists a greater percentage of land occupants than the Tithe Applotment Books do. It includes landowners, landlords, tenants with leases and renters. If your ancestors were in Ireland in this time period, there’s a good chance that they’re listed in Griffith’s.

You can use Griffith’s Valuation to find an ancestor’s home or the site of a former home on a map. Each property listed in Griffith’s was assigned a “map reference number,” which corresponds to a set of Griffith’s Valuation maps. Collections of Griffith’s Valuation are available on microfilm, microfiche and CD-ROM. You can now access Griffith’s online via the subscription Web site <>; price options range from $8 for 72 hours to $44 for a year. <> and Eneclann <>, in association with the National Library of Ireland, also are working to digitize these valuable records.

Now that you have the know-how to trace your Irish roots, are you eager to get back to the auld sod? Don’t plan a trip to Ireland just yet. At some point, you may want to have the exciting experience of researching in your ancestors’ homeland. But don’t go to Ireland unprepared. Do what work is possible at home. Then you can hop a plane to green country.

From the April 2003 issue of Family Tree Magazine.